The Risk of Wilful Blindness: Why Ignorance Isn't Always Bliss - Vista
The Risk of Wilful Blindness: Why Ignorance Isn’t Always Bliss
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The Risk of Wilful Blindness: Why Ignorance Isn’t Always Bliss

Wilful blindness is a phrase first brought to many people’s attention by Margaret Heffernan, in her famous Ted Talk. It’s defined as the conscious decision to ignore information or evidence that might challenge our beliefs, decisions or actions. In short, where we intentionally close our eyes to uncomfortable truths.

From a leadership and management perspective, it’s happened to most of us. That joke, ‘banter’, or comment that has made us feel uncomfortable, yet we just put up with it. But as the well-known phrase goes, ignorance is not always bliss and unintentional wilful blindness within your leadership and management teams can hide a multitude of sins: you may see a stagnation in personal growth and progress, as we miss out on opportunities for improvement. You may experience it to be the fuel of poor decision making. Whilst wilful blindness can also damage relationships, exacerbate issues and lead to ethical challenges in relation to dignity at work: and world knows that some of the biggest brands in the UK have recently fallen foul to this.

How to Tackle Wilful Blindness in your Organisation

To tackle this challenge in organisations, there are a few theories you can build into your training. We use Dr Paul Maclean’s human brain based theory, which helps managers make sense of (and therefore handle effectively) emotional reactions from team members, and recently we have been exploring the concept of wilful blindness, in a leadership programme we have developed in partnership with GeoAmey.

In this programme we focus on helping the team understand our social brain in action and its impact, how to engage our logical brain to make smarter decisions, explore the role of effective questioning and share a technique to call out behaviour that is not okay, but with empathy. Here’s an overview of the programme.


The Key Elements to Overcoming Wilful Blindness:
  • Recognise that everyone is susceptible to it – time to acknowledge that bias once again!
  • Encourage open dialogue – aim to foster a psychologically safe environment where open and honest discussions are encouraged
  • Stay respectfully curious – ask respectful questions, explore new (and uncomfortable topics) and give your people the freedom to admit when they don’t know something.

Recognising the presence of wilful blindness is a great step towards actively working to overcome it, to achieve healthier working relationships and a respectful and inclusive culture. If you’d like any support with this area of working life, our learning experts would be more than happy to discuss our experiences in dealing with and overcoming leadership challenges just like this.

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